Preserving Sarawak’s architectural heritage
WHEN I FIRST STEPPED into the lobby of The Ranee located at 7 Main Bazaar on June 25, I was awed by its exotic interior decorations.
I was there for the sneak preview of an art exhibition of sketches portraying the scenic beauty of Kuching by members of Urban Sketchers Kuching (USk Kch) in collaboration with Sarawak Heritage Society (SHS) to celebrate Malaysia Day this coming Sept 16.
The small exhibition showcased pencil and pen sketches of a few familiar places around Kuching such as the Satok Market and India Street, followed by light refreshments.
After having a scoop of gelato and a glass of lemongrass tea, my colleague and I sat with three ladies from Sarawak Heritage Society – Karen Shepard, Anna Wee, and Rose Au – who gave us another glimpse of what SHS is all about.
Shepard, the president of SHS first briefed us what heritage was all about.
“There are two branches of heritage; tangible and intangible. Tangible heritage obviously is the things that you can see around you, the buildings. Intangible is the life goes on inside them. The thing of heritage conservation is to preserve both because there’s no point in having a bunch of old buildings with no life inside them,” she said.
Clearly when we talk about heritage, it is not just about the old buildings and old pots from the 1800s; heritage includes our languages, our natural heritage with all the animals and plants and so on.
Some people might have the wrong perception about conserving heritage buildings. One might even think preserving heritage was to preserve the way it was in the past and not to touch or contaminate it.
Shepard cleared the air saying, “The whole point about heritage is not about the past, it is the link of the past and where we are now. The idea of preserving heritage so it is goes on into the future.”
Some developers and tourism managers might think that to attract more visitors to our state, more shopping malls need to be built and more high-rise buildings should be developed.
“Heritage and tourism can be uncomfortable together, but actually tourists come to a place like this because they want to see something that they cannot see anywhere else,” Shepard said. “Our goal is to help people to see the beauty in their history.
“If you go to Carpenter Street now, you’ll see how many buildings there are for rent. This is the heart of this town. If you allow the heritage to be taken over by plastic buildings, the town eventually dies.”
Wee is one of the committee members of SHS, and she shared how she signed up simply out of appreciation for the regal Kuching General Post Office at Jalan Tun Haji Openg, Kuching.
The Kuching General Post Office which Kuchingites refer to simply as “old post office” was constructed under the reign of Rajah Charles Vyner Brooke, the third and last white ruler of Sarawak. It was completed in 1932.
She was commenting on the beauty and elegance of the old post office building to a friend when her friend suggested she should join SHS.
On how owners are fleeing their old buildings due to poor customer traffic, Wee said, “I think the main challenge for us is that these are individual owners and you really can’t stop them doing what they want to do. Again it is an educational process, we can teach them to appreciate what they have.”
Wee hoped that more young people would join SHS and the young people may have not seen what the older generation have seen.
Au, another committee member of SHS also works as a freelance tourist guide and was one of the founding members of SHS.
Au said, “I think Sarawak Heritage Society has a lot of work to do. We started on heritage buildings because nobody started it. So we kind of stuck with it but there’s so much to do and so little time.”
SHS’ most recent effort to preserve and educate – especially the younger generation – of their heritage buildings was in Fort Alice, Sri Aman.
The conservation of the 145-year-old fort is under a programme called ‘Reminiscing Forgotten Treasure…Simanggang’.
The community-based cultural heritage conservation in Sri Aman is their second instalment of the programme after ‘Reminiscing Forgotten Treasure… Siniawan.’
Besides the famous Fort Margherita and Fort Alice, Sarawak actually has a long line up of forts waiting to be appreciated by the younger and future generations.
Among them are Fort Brooke in Sibu, Fort Emma in Kanowit, Fort Arundel in Lubok Antu, Fort Leonara in Engkili, Fort Brooke in Julan, Fort Sylvia in Kapt, Fort Lily in Betong, Fort Charles in Kabong, Fort Ranee in Saratok and Fort Hose in Marudi.
About Sarawak Heritage Society
SHS was started in 2006 by a group of architects and was officially launched in May 2007.
Its goal was to raise awareness which it does that through educational programmes, government liaisons and some advocacy work.
Their vision is to preserve heritage sites, encourage interest and values embodied in local heritage and promote and advance heritage conservation initiatives.
Sign up as a member and you can have all the following benefits; membership benefits for your children under 18 years of age and members’ discount for guided heritage tours, talks, events, exhibitions, conferences and cultural exchange tips.
The Malaysia Day exhibition venue which will feature more sketches from USk Kch is yet to be announced.
For all enquiries, drop an email at [email protected]